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Literature and Evolution: A Bio-Cultural Approach
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Philosophy and Literature 29.1 (2005) 1-23

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Literature and Evolution:

A Bio-Cultural Approach

University of Auckland

Many now feel that the "theory" that has dominated academic literary studies over the last thirty years or so is dead, and that it is time for a return to texts.1 But many more outside literary studies—in fields as diverse as anthropology, economics, law, psychology, and religion—have recently come to recognize that the deep past that shaped our species can help to explain our present and recent past. Since a bio-cultural model of the human can only be richer than a solely cultural model, and since it implies neither genetic determinism nor limitation to the status quo, I want to argue for a bio-cultural or evolutionary approach to literature, first in very general terms, and then through a few aspects of a single familiar example, Hamlet.2 Such an approach, I suggest, can offer both a more comprehensive theory of literature and a closer investigation of literary texts.


Traditional views of literature tended to see it as reflecting nature, especially human nature, all the way from Plato's discomfort with, or Aristotle's admiration for, mimesis to Shakespeare's or Stendhal's images of art as holding the mirror up to nature. Common-sense traditional views of art and literature have easily shaded into transcendental views, widespread because religious beliefs have been so pervasive and because both artists and their patrons in state or church benefit by nurturing a sense of awe at art's putatively divine origins and power.

In the twentieth century, first in sociology, anthropology, and even [End Page 1] psychology, then by the 1960s in the combination of these with Saussurean linguistics that produced structuralism and its aftershocks, and therefore impacted on literature, there has been a rejection of human nature as a given and a stress on human nature as the product only of culture and convention. "Theory," or what the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism more pointedly calls cultural critique, rightly critiques traditional common-sense and transcendental views of art, pointing out that the nature, human nature, or supernature that art or literature was supposed to reflect was merely what was assumed of these things from within a local cultural perspective.3 Roland Barthes, for example, criticized "the mystification which transforms petit-bourgeois culture into a universal nature."4 Modern Theory also rejects the individual as another bourgeois or capitalist or Western notion, as when Fredric Jameson echoed Barthes's Death of the Author by announcing the Death of the Subject.5 Criticism since the 1960s "has denied, on theoretical grounds, the relevance of the single historically definable author."6

However, as many have lately realized, there are problematic ethical consequences of both the denial of human nature and the denial of the individual. After such denials, on what basis do we then claim equal rights for all humans, and on what basis do we assign responsibility for particular actions?7 If there is no "single historically definable author," does that mean that someone penning a racist screed cannot be held accountable?

A critique of unquestioned Western assumptions about human nature was needed, but the post-1960s critique was shortsighted: it has not looked nearly far enough. While structuralism and its more or less rebellious offspring were continuing the lineage of early twentieth-century social sciences, the natural sciences were moving in the opposite direction, towards the first comprehensive scientific attempt to understand human nature in the context of evolution and human, animal, and artificial cognition and behavior.

In the humanities there has of late been widespread skepticism about science. Some postmodernists have what they deem "a sophisticated appreciation of the futility of proof and the relativity of all knowledge claims." But, as Daniel Dennett comments, "this opinion, far from being sophisticated, is the height of sheltered naïveté, made possible only by . . . ignorance of the proven methods of scientific truth-seeking and their power."8 Science does not generate only true answers: ideas proposed within it can of...